Former President Trump’s historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have opened a key door for the Biden administration as it eyes diplomacy with Pyongyang, former U.S. officials and regional experts said Tuesday, arguing that President Biden may have been given a unique opportunity to strike a denuclearization deal that’s eluded Washington for decades.
Speaking at “The Washington Brief,” a virtual event hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic advisor Joseph DeTrani said Mr. Biden should build on the successes of the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea rather than return to the “strategic patience” doctrine of the Obama era. Mr. Biden and his diplomatic team seem to be embracing something of a middle-of-the-road approach, borrowing aspects of President Obama’s patient, multilateral tack while capitalizing on the opening provided by Mr. Trump’s unprecedented personal diplomatic outreach.
A joint statement signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim after their face-to-face 2018 meeting in Singapore, Mr. DeTrani argued, offers Mr. Biden the best starting point any president has had in years. The White House, he added, would be wise to set aside its political differences with Mr. Trump and take advantage of it.
“‘Strategic patience’ for North Korea … was an opportunity for them to build more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. What did we accomplish by that?” Mr. DeTrani said at the event, the first installment of a monthly series moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill.
“I thought the Singapore joint statement was a very, very effective, very succinct document that spoke of a transformation of our relationship, which is what North Korea wants,” Mr. DeTrani said. “That’s the basis. We have a document now. … Let’s move from that. We have the makings to move forward.”
In the statement, the two nations called for a new era in relations and expressed support for the denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula. The document was not binding and did not lead to an actual deal, but the diplomatic inroads made by Mr. Trump may have a profound impact on future talks.
Still, the next several months are likely to be contentious, specialists said. There are already signs that Mr. Kim may be preparing to unveil new advances in his country’s ballistic missile program, or could even pursue the country’s first nuclear test since 2017.
North Korea may time its provocative actions to coincide with a major summit later this month between Mr. Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to Alexandre Mansourov, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
“From a tactical standpoint, in my opinion, the North Koreans are likely to test how seriously the United States is really committed to diplomacy, because they’ve seen this game many times before,” he said. “In my opinion, they may actually launch … a satellite, or conduct a submarine-based [intercontinental ballistic missile] test sometime around May 24, the Biden-Moon summit, just to see whether the Biden administration will abandon diplomacy after encountering the first headwinds” in its approach to Pyongyang.
Indeed, such a strategy would fit with North Korea’s past practice. Its 2017 nuclear test came early in Mr. Trump’s tenure and infuriated the new president, who threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the country if it threatened America. Ultimately he chose a more unorthodox approach attempting to cultivate Mr. Kim directly.
Months into Mr. Biden’s term, North Korean officials are again signaling an aggressive stance. Last weekend, a top North Korean official warned that the U.S. will face “a very grave situation” after Mr. Biden recently dubbed the country a threat to global peace and stability. Senior North Korean officials also blasted America’s “hostile policy” toward the reclusive nation, suggesting that Pyongyang may not eagerly return to the negotiating table.
At the same time, Mr. Kim may feel that he has proven he is capable of going toe-to-toe with an American president, and it’s unclear exactly how that dynamic may shape the future of U.S.-North Korean relations.
“He’s not so young anymore. He’s now got the very vital experience of the past several years, where essentially he stared down the barrel of … a very focused U.S., South Korean, Trump-era effort to alter the paradigm,” said Guy Taylor, national security team leader at The Times.
The Times Foundation’s series, which will examine the risks and opportunities on the Korean peninsula, will be held on the first Tuesday of each month.